Clark County Republicans blast Columbia River Crossing, call for complete redesign
Ten Southwest Washington Republicans, buoyed by voters' rejection of light-rail funding for the Columbia River Crossing, said Thursday the giant bridge must be completely redesigned.
The current and newly elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, issued a joint statement condemning plans for the project estimated at almost $3.5 billion as flawed, impossible to permit and essentially doomed.
But project backers dismissed the defeated Clark County ballot measure as a red herring and the bid for a redesign as a ploy to kill the bridge. They said light rail never needed the measure's proposed sales-tax increase, adding that pushing ahead to meet federal funding deadlines is crucial.
That response further infuriated signers of the statement. Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, said the $160 million spent on the project so far was a waste of money.
"This whole thing has been a master scam perpetrated on the citizens of Washington by Metro in order to bring light rail into Vancouver," Benton said. "It's malfeasance of office and the people behind it should be prosecuted."
The heated conflict is the latest skirmish over light rail, which opponents deride as an objectionable add-on and proponents defend as essential for securing $850 million in federal transportation funds -- without which, they say, the bridge can't be built. Light rail is a proxy for differing values, as many in Clark County resent what they see as Oregon's attempt to foist its green ethic on a region built partly as an escape valve from the Portland area's urban growth boundary.
The renewed controversy over the troubled, expensive planning effort comes as the Oregon and Washington legislatures prepare to consider ponying up $450 million each to qualify for federal funds. Under the Columbia River Crossing's current proposal, bridge tolls would add the remaining $1 billion and change.
Bridge planners are nervous because they must have the state commitments to apply for federal funds before other U.S. megaprojects get first dibs. The pot of federal dollars is expected to diminish after spring in a year of budget cuts and deficit-reduction pressures.
They plan to reach a final decision in December on the bridge's height, another point of controversy, and apply in January for U.S. Coast Guard permits.
The authors of Thursday's statement want a bridge high enough to allow passage of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredging vessels and barges transporting drilling rigs and other gigantic equipment manufactured upriver. They also want the environmental impact statement redone, which would set the project back years, and more public participation.
Patricia McCaig, Columbia River Crossing government-relations and communications director, said the measure to increase Clark County's sales tax by 0.1 percentage point was falsely portrayed as a referendum on light rail.
"For political purposes, they have positioned that measure as a referendum and are using its failure, which was expected, as an enticement for people who don't follow all of this to believe that the project's in trouble," McCaig said.
Continuing coverage of Columbia River Crossing
In fact, a sales-tax increase wasn't needed because C-Tran, Clark County's transportation agency, already has money for light-rail operation and maintenance, said Kelly Parker, president and chief executive of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce. The chamber supports the project and sees the bid for redesign as a concerted effort to kill a bridge that has been crafted to fit exacting parameters, she said.
"If you start over and you redesign it and you work with your partners in Oregon," Parker said, "you will come out with the same design and you will have wasted more years and more millions of dollars."
Economist Joe Cortright, a persistent critic of the project, sees it exactly opposite. Defeat of the light-rail tax created a major financing, scheduling and political problem for CRC advocates, he said, showing a lack of necessary support for state and federal funds.
"The sooner we declare the current version dead, the sooner we'll have a serious discussion about what we really want and can afford," Cortright said in an email. "The longer we wait, the more money CRC will squander and the harder it will be to get to a buildable alternative."
Vancouver Mayor Timothy Leavitt, a supporter of the project, said he learned of the statement from the 10 politicians while stuck in traffic at 2:30 p.m. Thursday trying to cross the Interstate Bridge.
Contrary to the letter's claims, Leavitt said, members of the public have had ample opportunities for a decade to participate in the planning process. The authors of the statement are "thumbing their nose" at the public, he said, and rejecting return of more than $1 billion in federal tax money to the community.
"It's time to quit wasting time and money, get the design and mitigation finished, and get under construction," Leavitt said. "Our economy, our businesses, our jobs and the sanity of our public are in the balance."